Doubt & Certainty

“Expose yourself to doubt,” it used to say on the masthead above (Caroline later came up with “question life’s big answers.”) Periodically, I’m asked, Why? After all, the Buddha said, “There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt.” Actually, He was talking about mistrust.

When it comes to belief in things that are simply beyond our ken, he wholeheartedly encouraged doubt and questioning. If we don’t know something we should just say so, and not make up an answer. I always loved the honesty of that approach. Scepticism is a fundamental tenet of what the Buddha taught.

Since Caroline entered my life, however, it’s become less of a philosophical point of view and more of a daily reality check.

I love Caroline for who she is; that needs no saying. I also love life with Caroline, and that sometimes mystifies people who don’t know us. My siblings were horrified when they learned I’d teamed up with a woman with an incurable neurodegenerative disease. What sort of future was I signing up for? Even Caroline herself, as she felt us growing close back in those early days, urged me, “Run! Save yourself.”

I laughed.

She frowned. “I mean it.”

“I know you do,” I said, “but I mean to stick around — as long as you want me to, anyway.”

She’d lived with multiple sclerosis for eight years at that point, and was as accustomed to it as she’d ever get, I suppose. She took it one day at a time. This was far more of a challenge than I’d ever had to deal with, but I’d lived long enough to know that I might avoid one problem only to end up with a bigger one.

“if you’re not afraid of death from time to time,
you’re not human.”

The important thing was that life with Caroline was unmistakably good in so many ways that I didn’t want to miss it. But suppose the future turned out to be horrible? Well, the future’s always horrible sooner or later, isn’t it? It’s never stopped the human race. No one knows what awaits them — except for certain death, of course. Compared to that, everything else is chicken feed.

Close to the end of my monkhood, I was taken for lunch by a benefactor. It was quite common for sponsored monks. We were expected to repay their material aid with our spiritual support. Once we’d looked over the menu and ordered, she leaned forward with an intense gaze and asked, “Aren’t you afraid of death?”

I shook my head nonchalantly. I think I truly believed I’d taken the Buddha’s words about impermanence to heart, and was at peace with my mortality. On the other hand, as I look back I can’t help thinking that I was still youthfully stupid enough to believe in my own ultimate immortality. I saw reincarnation as a hedge against extinction (which is about as opposite to the Buddha’s thinking as you could get). “No,” I said. I’m not afraid of death.”

She maintained her gaze. Clearly, she was afraid. I never did find out what prompted her intensity — a medical diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, perhaps. Looking back, I’m humbled by her vulnerability and ashamed of my pretence, even though it was well-intentioned and at least self-consciously sincere. But really — if you’re not afraid of death from time to time, you’re not human.

Nevertheless, sickness and death are grist for the mill — hardly a reason to not stick around someone you love. With that triviality out of the way, we can turn to the good side of living with someone in Caroline’s condition — the constant reminder that we don’t know what to expect, that we can’t be sure of anything — of being exposed to doubt.

Caroline’s recent veinoplasty has given her a new lease on life. It doesn’t seem to be a cure and no one’s adequately explained how it works — but that it works is beyond doubt. She has energy I haven’t seen in years, is exercising and growing stronger, and is regaining some of the balance and mental clarity she’s lost in recent years.

What’s the drawback? We don’t know how long it’ll last.

Well, isn’t that funny? We can’t be certain of anything. And so Caroline takes it one day at a time, and I, by sharing her life, get to share in that attitude in which every moment is unique, contingent and unrepeatable. Circumstances have forced our attention, and attention is always a good thing. It’s the key to the Buddha’s way:
Attention is living; inattention is dying.
The attentive never stop; the inattentive are dead already.

—Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha  [Dhammapada 21, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu]

I think that by avoiding doubt, we’re evading reality. Life’s uncertain — so discomfortingly so that we make up certainty — but that’s just the human spin on life. Doubt is healthy; it keeps your mind, your attitude and your options open.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

5 thoughts on “Doubt & Certainty”

  1. Hello Stephen,

    When two clouds meet that’s what happens, they join and became one.

    You are right about Caroline, the energy and sparkle are there. I noticed, and have just started working with her and her coaching program. I’m a chronic pain person in the very, very last stages of medically supervised withdrawal from opiate dependance. In life if you get lucky you get sick!!!! You get off the train you’ve been riding with all that baggage, and start from square one.

    I look forward to meeting you again, until then, be safe and at peace.

    Peter B. Jones, a Warrior.

  2. Stephen, I really liked your entry today.

    Ahhh…gratitude for it ALL. Now THAT’S the stuff!

    I cannot find, in the truth of my heart, one experience in my life that was not truly beneficial to my personal understanding of how “It” works. And I was not raised in Disney land! A very alcoholic upbringing, and coincidentally, a lot of MS in my family as well; I have known others who have had this surgery, and it is truly a miracle. Now the trick will be in trying to convince my sister to have it. She seems to be resigned to the pain of a slow and painful demise, like hope has fallen to the bottom of her bag of tricks.

    The ability to seek help and be BETTER, whether it be from a physical ailment, an emotional or mental one or a spiritual one is, it seems, not easy for everyone. I have an extraordinary respect for the people who go are able to pull “hope” out of the bag every once in a while when they may sometimes feel the “unfairness” of the struggles of life. Even for some, coming to your class may be a big step in just doing something of value for themselves. Self-respect starts in the self. We can’t expect it form the rest of the world until we are willing to give it to ourselves. I think that’s what I’m learning, and I seem to be concluding that the single one and only thing any of us will EVER have control over in this lifetime is our PERCEPTION of the life that greets us when we place our feet on the floor first thing in the morning. We have been given many tools to help us with that perception, and Buddhism is certainly one that emphasizes clarity and presence, which can only be good.

    Writing helps me think. Thanks.

    Peace,

    Josee

    PS: I really like that Peter signs his emails with A Warrior. Nice! 🙂

  3. Stephen , what a wonderful entry that has also prompted some special responses! Caroline and you are constant reminders of the reality of dealing with doubt and uncertainty. Your personal story that you share here is a beautiful one and very real, I know. I had been wondering how things were going for Caroline, so it was great to read this.
    With your teaching I’m learning to live that one day at a time!

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge,life experiences and insights.I look forward to your next session Dealing with Anxiety and Fear.

    Wishing you both peace, inner strength and contentment

    Diane

  4. Thank you Stephen for this wonderful article that literally came on “my doorstep” when I most needed it! As of late, I have been having many doubts about my role here on earth, my purpose and is there really such an energy as Love, the Divine etc.. It surprises me that after all that I have been through, the many miracles I have witnessed that I would still doubt!!!
    I am in love with this Life, but at times I catch myself wondering what this is all for. After reading your message, I do not feel so bad about still having doubts at times. It is part of this game we call life! The only certainty I have is that I will doubt sometimes and that is O.K.
    I wish you and Caroline peace beyond understanding….

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